Friday, January 4, 2008

fish balls on a stick and other grocery list essentials

“Maybe we can snack on these!” BJ jokes, handing me a packet of chili-fried baby crabs. It is a college party snack joke waiting to happen. “Hey people, Abu over here brought the stuff camel, and for the ladies, BJ brought the crabs.” It is always such a circus to go to Uwajimaya, an Asian supermarket here in the international district of Seattle.

Now here is a place that combines the best of both worlds: crazy things only Asians would eat, and an American assortment, which in turn translate to a night of pure entertainment of products I would like to bring to some of my marketing classes. Tell me, dear professor, how do I market fish balls on a stick to the American consumer?

The sheer selection was mind boggling: the tea section was an entire aisle. There were at least 30 types of green tea, black tea, oolong, you name it. Fruit? Forget your apples and oranges, we got mangoes, manggis, rambutan, and the king of the fruit, the mighty durian. Even the bread has a selection with pandan (banana leaf), santan (coconut milk), and many others. There is a warzone in the middle of the store: rice bags piled up on either side, trenches of food large enough to feed an entire army. I can see a solider running back and forth in my mind screaming urgently: “rice cookers! We need more rice cookers!”

Food plays such a major part of our lives, nourishing our bodies (or not), comforting us when we’re sad, or even showing our economic status. For me, food is almost like a looking glass that reminds me of my roots and the complexities of being a third culture kid. My parents always told me to try everything just once. How else would a six year old kindly ask for chicken feet soup in Singapore? How do I know that the fish eye is the best part of fish head curry? Aquariums were awesome to go to, because my mom would tell me how to cook the fish that just swam by. Then there are the stories of the durian nights of drunkenness. When home in Medan with my family, we would have a durian party, usually on the tiles of the garage. My grandmother, 80-something with machete in hand would with one swoop hack the spiky fruit apart to reveal the treasures of a perfect seed: covered in the rich yellow meat of the durian that to me has the most amazing velvet texture to it. Durian has a bit of fermentation; you can get awfully giddy eating it. I, on the other hand, get DRUNK off of durian.

“How about these?” I walk back from memory lane and stare at what BJ has put in front of my eyes. Lactic Acid bars. I’m still confused. It looks like those tubes you put in the fridge and freeze. Who made the name for this thing? Lactic acid fruit bars? Seriously? I jotted down the email address on the back to email the company to ask them if they need a new marketing intern. The best one yet: Birds net and white fungus dessert soup with red beans. This is quite a lovely dish from Singapore, light and served cold to ward off the heat. I was doing a marketing project for a dessert shop with a bunch of Singaporean exchange students, and they couldn’t understand that this was not going to work here in Seattle. “Yes, waiter, the white fungus birds nest soup with red beans please. Vanilla ice cream is just sooo passé.”

You have got to love globalism, if anything to make it easier for people to exchange ideas, try new things, and be more open minded, and you can do without trekking through the outer parts of Mongolia. Just start small in your own local Asian grocery store. I learned a lot about myself today, where I’ve been, who’ve I become, and what new things I will try in the future. Remember, you are what you eat, which means eating just about anything shows you are open to an ever changing world. That, and you’ll be surprised how comforting shrimp crackers can be on a Friday night.


aishah said...

Dearest Danie,
What an insightful account. The world is indeed a global village and it needs many more unbias, open-minded, prejudice-free people like you to promote tolerance for and education on each other's cultures. Being smart Indo-Americans, you, Riani and Estelle are perfect ambassadors for the job, so do your bit, won't you?
Your blog will be a pleasure to read. Happy 2008!

Payo said...
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